Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Britain’s Post-War Demolition Madness

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 31st July, 2019

The Rovers ReturnGrowing up in Eccles, on the western outreaches of Salford, a few years after the Second World War, I was very conscious how drab and grey much of Greater Manchester was. Whereas the 19th century had seen an extraordinary industrial boom, propelling the city from a certain obscurity to global importance, the 20th century had witnessed gradual decline. Many of the magnificent city centre buildings had become soot-black, and stately warehouses and commercial premises were empty or abandoned. Even as a schoolkid, busing across both Salford and Manchester every weekday to get to Manchester Grammar School, I was aware that a lot of demolition was going on. Coronation Street — which really existed — and many other back-to-back housing districts were being “cleared” in the 1960s, just when the Granada TV series (launched in 1960) that had expropriated the name was becoming a national ITV favourite. The fictional street had a pub called the Rovers Return, and that name was also a steal: the real Rovers Return had been the self-proclaimed oldest “beerhouse” in Britain, in Shudehill, supposedly established in the early 14th century, but demolished in 1958. It may seem incredible to us now that such a piece of heritage could be casually disposed of, as the city’s socialist administration aimed to “modernise” and “regenerate” the urban environment. But that was the leitmotif of the era. Even as a callow youth I decried the demolition of some of the fabulous mansions on “Millionaires Row” near Hope that my bus passed daily.

Poplar 1950When I came to London in 1982 (after eight years in Brussels) I discovered similar things had been going on here, as housing estates and high-rise blocks of flats replaced more traditional forms of low-rise housing. When I moved to Bow, in 1986, I assumed that the blocks of flats on the other side of the road had replaced bomb-sites, but not a bit of it. There had been rows of late Victorian terraced houses, just like mine, that had been bulldozed after the War in the name of progress. These days, our side of the road is a conservation area, thankfully, but the neighbourhood opposite cannot be conserved because it has gone. Of course, German bombing did destroy a lot of Britain’s urban landscape, but was it really necessary to just continue obliterating the physical memories of the past? I believe not. At least trees are being planted everywhere in Tower Hamlets these days. But even their beautiful greenness cannot hide the architectural ghosts of the past.

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One Response to “Britain’s Post-War Demolition Madness”

  1. There was great deal of construction activity during World War II for military purposes and the construction industry could be readily augmented by returning servicemen. The thirties had produced quite a lot of middle-class semis, not always to adequate standards, but was a lean time for building social housing and updating older properties. During the war building materials were unavailable for civilian purposes and many houses big and small deteriorated further. So this expanding construction industry got the bit between its teeth, replacing bombed properties and building new estates and new towns on greenfield sites. The needs for more housing were recognised and acted on and councils, governments and ministers built their reputations on the sheer numbers of properties completed – something we could have done with in the last twenty years and today. But, as you indicated, the construction industry tail started to wag the housing needs dog. If you are thinking large scale and predictable projects, restoring older worthwhile properties looks more work and requiries specialist skills, some from an earlier era, The money involved produced scandals – the names of Poulson and T. Dan Smith spring to mind. I wholly agree that some of the buildings that were destroyed are as much to be regretted as those destroyed by the Luftwaffe.

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